Research Tips: How to get information like a pro

1. Getting the dope – gathering business intelligence

Ask the expert.
Call experts and ask them questions. You won’t be lying when you say you are “studying the market” for a particular product or service.

Trade associations, research and stock analysts, nearly anyone employed full-time in an industry (clerk, manufacturer’s rep, market, sales, operations or finance personnel. to name a few), consultants, publication editors and advertising reps, as well as writers are among the range of unusual suspects that make for expert sources.

Call the source directly.
Not sure about a statistic you saw? Does it cover U.S. sales and international? Is that annual revenues or total sales?

Go to the horse’s mouth to get the information you need. Call the source, whether trade association (ask for their librarian or information services department), consultancy (ask for public relations or an analyst that covers your topic), company (ask for investor relations, media relations or public relations) and ask.

Remember free resources.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Consider what information exists already, the age of the information and integrity of the source.

Trade publications are a hotbed of free up-to-date information. Find the trade publications that cover the market or industry you are studying through Web searches or from publication directories at your local library. Call the advertising reps for the publications and request to have their media kits sent or find them at the publication’s Web site. These often contain sample back-issues as well as industry reports and statistics. Ask the publication rep if other free industry reports are available, and specific questions you have about the market.

What consultancies, research companies or other firms track the market or industry you are studying? You can usually find this out by reviewing a few articles on the topic. Call or visit the Web site of these firms. They may have reports, press releases or other information to offer. Get a willing source on the phone from these firms and you can sometimes coax your way into receiving a report for which they might otherwise charge.

What government agencies track the topic, if any? You can also get great industry information through investment reports, some are offered for free in business reference databases at your local library. See the Library, Finding Research Online section.

2. Surfing the ‘Net – achieving maximum results
Also see "Finding research online the easy way"

Searching tips.
To target exactly what you are looking for at most searches engines, use Quotes (“.”) around phrases. Google, FastSearch, Hotbot, AltaVista and Wisenut are among recommended search engines that will bring better results when you use quotes. This works best for people, companies, book titles and any phrase you want to reference word for word.

Looking for a specific type of document or an image? Many search engines allow you to search by document type. For example, to search for Images, whether JPEG or other, at Google click on Image. Google allows you to search for documents in a range of formats such as PDF, Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and Excel. To find topics covered in a document of a certain format, type the terms or phrase you’re seeking, and then filetype: pdf, filetype:doc, etc. Go to Google’s Advanced Search page and use the drop-down menu at File Format.

Want to get the scoop on a person or company via their activity in news groups? A number of search engines offer the option to search these groups. Click on Groups at Google, and search news, biz, rec, soc or other extensions that denote the group by topic.

Consider the hidden deep.
A plethora of resources, search engines and other databases on the Internet do not come up in general searches. This hidden or invisible Web content not accessible via Web search engines -- the so-called Deep Web -- is estimated to be 500 times larger than the searchable Web.

Here is where you need to drill down to industry-specific publications, databases and general information sources. But you have to know where to look. Searches at general search sites will point the way. For example, a major publisher of periodicals has a search engine at its own site, offering free full-text articles of its archives across dozens of publications. Most of these references don’t surface from initial searches at general search engines.

In some cases, you may have to be a subscriber of a publication or a member of an organization to be able to access a site’s database. For instance, within the advertising and marketing realm, Adweek and Ad Age, major advertising industry periodicals, as well as the American Association of Advertising Agencies, a U.S. trade group, offer articles, industry information and other library resources at their Web sites or via business reference/library services available offline. In summary, many online publications and databases offer a variety of free and for-fee content. Anyone can retrieve a basic business profile at Hoovers site, but detailed company information and more about company subsidiaries is available through a Hoovers subscription. That brings us to the next section.

Paid databases deliver bang for bucks.
The Web holds hundreds of reputable databases, online research services and other portals on a paid or subscription basis. To achieve the best results, stick with major names such as Hoovers, Dow Jones, LexisNexis, and Thompson Corp.’s Dialog service. Dialog offers some 900 databases, and searches allow for great specificity.

A less costly resource is the approximate $80 annual fee (or $6.95 per month) you pay as an online subscriber to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). When you subscribe, you can access a vast global business database of newspapers as well as business journals and trade publications. The WSJ archive taps into Factiva, a Dow Jones and Reuters research service. You don’t pay for headlines and brief summaries which reference the title of the article, publication, date and first sentence of the article, so you can get an idea of the available material on the topic just by searching. And if you don’t want to spend the $2.95 per article fee to retrieve the full-text of an article (which is charged to your credit card), then you can go to the library and try to track down the publication on a free basis, or use other electronic means to find the article. You can also subscribe to Factiva directly through its Web site.

3. Library trip – using the library

Go there.
Ask the librarian.
Librarians make the best one-stop source for your business reference and research needs. If you are unsure where to start, save yourself a lot of headaches and ask the librarian first. What reference books or online resources can they recommend based on your research or marketing question? Ask for general pointers first, then go back for specific help as you need it.

Find research online the easy way.
Most U.S. public libraries offer sophisticated online business reference resources, databases and information portals. These include popular free business information databases by Hoovers, InfoUSA and Gale, including its InfoTrac unit.

You can get up to speed quickly on a product, market or industry by retrieving full-text or abstracts (summaries) of articles in many periodical databases available for free at libraries, such as those by ProQuest, or the General Reference Center Gold. Gale has a new database, the Business & Company Resource Center, available at some libraries which gives company facts and industry information.

Many libraries also offer these business databases through their Web site so you can research from home. However, you’ll reap the best, unfettered access when you visit the library.

Research via hard copy can be faster than online.
Need to know a company’s lineage and subsidiaries? What about a company’s brands and products? What publications cover your market? Those answers are all in easy-to-find directories at your local library business reference desk. There’s even a directory entirely dedicated to market share information by industry, compiled from oddball sources.

Consulting actual reference books, periodicals and other publications can eliminate the black hole of online research that wastes time. D&B, Ward’s, Hoovers and Gale are among the major publishers of business reference tomes.

You may find references to academic, scientific and other journals and periodicals that your local library doesn’t carry, so consider the specialty library. Take advantage if your community offers a business reference library, college or university library. As a general rule, most of these specialty libraries offer public access.

Retrieving the data.
Do it yourself. Copy it, save it, send it, print it. Most libraries today offer a variety of ways to retrieve information. Bring plenty of quarters for photocopying articles or pages from reference books. For online searches, many libraries charge for print outs from reference databases, usually on a per-page basis. To avoid this, some online references services at libraries offer the option to e-mail research results. Some offer the ability to download to a floppy disk.

Outsourcing to the library or research professional. Remember that for a fee, plus any per-minute or per-article connect fees to databases, some major libraries can do your research for you, providing online database searches, article and report retrievals. So can a marketing research professional. To outsource your research project, see the Marketing Research Services section of this site for more information on my services or consult local organizations or business listings.